Friday, November 18, 2011


Our first taste of Punjab. When we first arrived Amritsar (after 2 buses and a total of 20 hours 30 mins travel time)it seemed to be a busy, bustling city and the thought of peace ("shanty" in Hindi) and quiet seemed near impossible. 

Amritsar is in the state north of Rajasthan, Punjab and is right on the border of Pakistan. It is quite amazing how different the regions here are, the people, food and laws all change from state to state. Pulling in on the bus the first differences I noticed was the food. 

Punjab is famous for its tandoori chicken and on every corner is a chicken shop selling all kinds of wonderfully seasoned succulent chicken. After a month in Rajasthan without meat the though of chicken was salivating. A Bevy of booze stores also seemed much more apparent. We were used to Rajasthan where wine shops were very rare and restaurants are not supposed to serve beer, but when they do the waiter comes up to you and whispers in your ear; "beer is possible sir".
Our "4 different types of chicken" meal
The people here were by far the biggest difference, they were calm and interested in asking questions purely for the answer and not to butter you up for some scam. There was a nice calmness in the atmosphere that we hadn't experienced before on our trip. 

The golden temple itself is very beautiful. A spectacular work of gold, suspended on a beautiful clean lake surrounded by marble floor and buildings that is washed with water and milk every night. Just walking around is a lovely experience, seeing how much faith meant to its Sikh people. Sikh men were dressed in their full attire, complete with sword or spear and people prayed and bathed in the holy water. Live traditional music played through the speakers all around. If you ever go to the golden temple, see it at sunrise, midday and sunset as the light it reflects are all different and spectacular.

We stayed in an amazing free lodging predominantly for Indian pilgrims coming to see the golden temple, an ancient Sikh temple covered in gold. The lodging is a huge Victorian building three levels high with hundreds of rooms and terraces and a middle courtyard where even more pilgrims where squeezed in to sleep on the floor at night. There is a small dorm room for western backpackers that reminded me of being on school camp. The bathrooms were relatively modern, with showers and toilets for all cultures, usually kept clean, apart from one mysterious poop sitting in the middle of the floor. 

Located just outside the golden temple is a dining hall, like no other we had seen before. It is an extremely clever and Utopian-esk establishment and India was the last place I thought it would be situated. It almost reminded you of an Ikea store. Everyone follows the little arrows and moves in the same direction like a flow of a river. You walk in, shoes off and hair covered, collect a plate, collect a bowl and finally a spoon. 
You head up some stairs and into the massive dining room. The room has beautiful carved marble pillars and runs of carpet spanning 100-200m. You enter and go and sit on the carpet cross legged. Within moments a boy comes serving chapatis, you receive them with two open palms. Next a man with a metal vase of dahl spoons some onto your plate. The same process is repeated for curry, rice and water. If your plate is empty they will come and refill your plate until you leave, none go hungry here. You then exit the dining hall, make a donation if you like and pass your metal bowl, plate and spoon to a series of men who organise it to be washed. 
The kitchen is run purely by volunteers so we decided to give a helping hand at what we were best at, washing dishes. It is quite amazing there are massive troughs filled with hot water and soap. Around ten people are washing up on each trough and at the time we were there, three washing stations were in operation. We washed the bowls and plates which were then collected and sent to a rinsing trough, where after they were collected and put out to dry. When the washing water became cold there would be another hot steaming trough ready for us to switch to. There were even too many volunteers so washing dishes almost became a race to be the first one to find a dirty one to wash. It ran like a well oiled machine and was insanely impressive. 
Out of the washing bay there were twenty people purely peeling garlic cloves for the lunch.
Now all this may sound like any old soup kitchen back home, but this kitchen feeds 60,000-80,000 people every day, to put things in perspective the entire homeless population of Australia as of 2006 was 104,676. This mean that this one kitchen could feed 80% of Australia's homeless. It is open twenty four hours a day and is run purely on donations and volunteers and people are fed as much as they like.

This is what I mean by Utopian. There are no beggars in the street. Nobody trying to con you for money. The general mood of people is placid and peaceful. I think as everything is provided for people here, free of charge, the peaceful feeling is achieved.   

The other somewhat hilarious attraction to Amritsar is the border. Here you are able to get a taxi to the border of Pakistan and witness the ridiculous theatrics of the closing ceremony of the border that takes place every single day!
The Indian grand stand was packed- on a Thursday night! 

The heavy security at the border

We were seated 20 metres from the Pakistani border in the "VIP tourist" section, snipers visible on each side. The grandstands on each side of the border quickly filled with patrons from either side like a sports match. The Pakistan stand had significantly less people in the crowd and less theatrics as well. 
The festivities started with music and girls running the Indian flag up and down the road between the opposing countries. After, the Indian mascot, who looked to be some type of Indian Tony Robbinson come basketball star revved the crowd up and chanting began along with Indian pop music, including the popular song "ajar ajar" form slum dog millionaire. 
Dancing in the street
This next part was my favourite, all the women of the crowd, old and young got up and danced in the street to the music with smiles on their faces and no sign of self conciseness. That is something that i respect about Indian culture. They are not wrapped up in their own worlds, the locals speak to each other on the train and share biscuits, the women dance on the street with a smile and no embarrassment. No ipods on the train staring into the distance wishing for human contact, no awkwardness in getting up and enjoying the freedom to dance. 

After the dance the soldiers on each side began a parade of what can only be explained as a reenactment of Monty Pythons ministry of silly walks. These are apparently a show of pride and strength that each side performs simultaneously. The gates are open, each soldier exchanges a handshake and the flags are lowered. Finally the gates are closed for the night.
The closing of the gates
The entire experience was in good spirit and is more a show put on for the locals and I would recommend it to anyone travelling there. It is amazing how much enthusiasm, effort and how many people are in the crowds considering it happens every night!

Go India! Us getting into the spirit of the border closing ceremony

After a lovely chicken meal, shared with nine of us from the dorm, some midnight chai (provided by the dining hall) and a good sleep on hard bed we were ready to embark in the morning to the home of the Dalai lama, Mcleod Ganj near Dharamsala.    

1 comment:

  1. Hey Dan,

    Just popped by to say - wow, everything looks incredible!

    Extremely jealous of all your adventures and almost out-of-this-world experiences.

    Keep blogging, I'm loving it.

    Lots of love from your neighbourino,